Depression: the Blacksburg hypothesis

By | January 12, 2014

I suffer from chronic depression.

There are days that I simply can’t get up the energy to do much of anything. Days when I have a long list of things to do — enjoyable things, even — and yet the whole day goes by, nothing gets done, and I look back and go “okay, what exactly happened there?”

It’s not that I curl up in a fetal position in bed. I just sit down at my computer, start loading web pages (news, sports, Wikipedia, random stuff), and then it’s eight hours later and I’ve told myself a dozen times that I should get up and do stuff, and then I open one more page and and and …

When I’m at work, my job entails delivering technical training to customers across the USA, usually in person, but sometimes via WebEx from my office in Vermont. I get enough of a lift out of working with people on interesting technical topics that the depression doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to get its hooks into me. I generally enjoy what I do. (I’ve been in my current job since 1998 — and I prefer a job with all the travel to a job that keeps me stuck in a little office five days a week, 48 weeks a year. The travel isn’t actually what depresses me. If anything, variety cheers me up.)

But then, at night, when I go back to my hotel room, instead of going down to the fitness center or out on the streets for a run, I camp out in front of my laptop, doing email, surfing web pages, and so on. Dinner is room service or I order out — I almost never go to a restaurant. (Eating out on your own when you’re traveling for business is one of the most depressing experiences imaginable. You sit there at a table by yourself with a newspaper or your smartphone or whatever and watch all the families and couples and groups around you and wish you weren’t the lonely solitary weirdo in the pack.)

I can repeat that cycle endlessly. The weeks just fly by in a fog of work, zoning out, sleeping — lather, rinse repeat. I fly home, I fly back out, I do chores (cooking, laundry, shopping) in between, and one year gives way to another. I’ve become a master procrastinator… there are things I’ve literally wanted to get around to for years now that remain undone.

I’ve started putting on weight, a few years after getting down to 180, I’m back up to 220, which is only 20 pounds shy of the most I ever weighed. I should be going out and exercising and getting myself back in running shape, but after doing a pretty good job running the first half of 2013, I’ve really slacked off since. I keep on saying “tomorrow.

The most I can say in my defense (not that anyone is actually leveling a finger at me for wasting my entire life) is that I don’t zone out in front of the television and that I’m very responsible about keeping the house clean and food in the refrigerator for my wife. I don’t put off or avoid things that my conscience tells me are absolutely necessary.

Before you ask: yes, I’ve seen a therapist, although my work schedule got so busy in the second half of 2013 that I never managed to squeeze in an appointment. I should try to find time to get back in for a session sometime soon. And I am on antidepressants: citalopram and trazodone. And I know regular exercise would probably help with the depression. But it’s kind of a vicious circle, obviously: if I was exercising, I wouldn’t be depressed, but I’m depressed, so I don’t exercise.

Last year I didn’t really take any vacation to speak of until December, when I wound up taking the whole month, more or less, off — and since my wife, Carole, was working, I mostly sat around the house staring at the wall. I did chores; I cleaned and fed the cats and did laundry and cooked, but I never went to the gym and I never did any of the blogging about last year’s Susan G. Komen breast cancer walks that I wanted to get caught up on. And then the year was over, and my long staycation was over, and I’m heading back out on the road tomorrow to start a week-long business trip. The whole month of December is just one gray blur.

I’ve tried to figure out why I’m so depressed. Why I’m stuck in this months-long funk. There are theories, some obvious, some not.

It could be purely biochemical. It might have nothing to do with external factors. My maternal grandmother was hospitalized for depression and other mental illnesses for a sizeable chunk of her life (don’t look for awesome cutting-edge psychiatric care in Depression-era rural Florida). But I’ve generally been happy-go-lucky, almost offensively so, all my adult life. I say ‘offensively so’ because one of my obvious flaws is my impulsive, act-first-think-later way of behaving that’s annoyed the hell out of a lot of people. I’m an extrovert. That’s why I get energy from being around people all day, training, teaching, and running my yap. Kind of a weird thing, isn’t it: a depressed, stuck-in-a-rut extrovert?

It could be due to stress. I have a lot of work-related stress that I think I take in stride; I’m on call to deliver an awesome training job, week in, week out, never mind the people and the personalities in the room. I basically can’t take sick days when I’ve traveled two thousand miles to deliver a class onsite at a customer, a customer who’s paid a lot of money for me to be there. In fifteen years, I think I’ve taken a sick day about three times — once for a cracked molar, once because I went to the bathroom at lunch and threw up and couldn’t be sure a repeat wasn’t impending, and once because … well, I don’t recall. But often, my job is like that of an actor — having to be perky and enthusiastic and totally into the role of helpful and all-knowing trainer, no matter how I feel or what’s going on in my life.

It could be due to the number of acquaintances and friends who are battling breast cancer, people I’ve come to know and love through my Komen breast cancer walks. It absolutely wrecks me for days when someone I know loses their battle. So many wonderful people, so much more deserving of a full, happy life than I am, have been robbed of that opportunity by a brutal, stupid disease.

It could be due to my family situation. I lost my mom a couple of years ago, and my father’s had a broken hip and a massive stroke (from which he recovered beautifully, I’m delighted to say) just this year alone, and my wife has a lot of issues that I don’t really want to bring up here. This isn’t about her; it’s about me. Suffice it to say that I haven’t always been very good, to say the least, at keeping myself sane and safe when she’s having a bad day, or week, or month, or …

But of late I’ve been wondering how much can be attributed to my having an excellent, if selective, memory. Specifically, a memory well honed for recalling my own screw-ups and shortcomings.

Here’s a question for you: how many of you, reading this, would want photographic recall of every day of your school-age years? From first grade through twelfth grade, with every embarrassing, awful failure, faux pas, and fiasco vividly recalled in Technicolor and four-part harmony?

That’s basically where I’m at. I grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, the son of a professor and a library director, and I remember that childhood well. I look back every day on my behavior from about the time I was in first or second grade until the time I went off to college, and even after, and kinda wish I could go back and just smother myself with a pillow. I was an ass.

I was hyperactive in elementary school. A major dweeb in middle school. A bored, lazy jerk in high school who never did homework, had the social skills of a stunned newt, and never got the girl. (I doubt there was a single girl, period, who thought I was cute, let alone worth giving the time of day to.) And I remember vividly dozens of things I did, so inept and clueless as to be absolutely, completely, cringeworthy, things that I’d give a great deal to be able to erase from ever having happened.

I had a childhood that wasn’t exactly pleasant, even without the major-league idiocy on my part. My father had a violent temper, a temper that we kids seem to have inherited (although at least I’m aware of that fact, and am doing what I can to work on it). We lived miles from town and consequently had no friends — everyone else at elementary school knew the kids from their neighborhoods, but I was always an outsider. And even into my high school years, I didn’t have a social life; in the unlikely situation where I’d gotten a girl to go out with me on a date, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to go; the car was for going to school, going to work at Hardee’s, and going home.

So yeah, I wasn’t exactly socialized. I might as well have been home-schooled for all the learning-to-play-well-with-others I did in my formative years. And let me tell you, it showed. I’m particularly embarrassed by how I behaved in marching band in high school, a raging tornado of puberty-fueled desires and absolutely no concept of what was appropriate and what wasn’t.


Christ. As I sit here typing this, I’m frankly surprised that people didn’t just put me in a sack weighted down with rocks and heave me in the New River.

Now, don’t let me give you the idea that I’m sitting here having a little pity-party. Far from it. I have tried to get my life in order and live like the person I want to be, but then my memories of what a loser and a failure I was resurface and I want to curl up in a fetal position. I’m not asking for sympathy and I’m not pointing a finger and saying “it’s all my fault; I was misunderstood.”

I think it really all comes down to the Eighth and Ninth Steps. (I’m not an alcoholic and rarely touch alcohol; I just happen to be aware of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and allied groups.) Namely:

“8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

“9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

I’ve got a long list of people I’ve harmed. The list stretches on past the apocalypse of my school-age years and into my college years and the years since then. (Despite my blathering about my youth in Blacksburg, I’m not saying that all the bad crap ended with graduation. It’s not that I’ve been a paragon of self-control and probity since turning 18; I’ve just cut back the imbecility to a low roar.) The problem is that it’s extremely hard to make amends to people who’ve grown up, gotten their lives together, had kids, matured, moved on — and you’re stuck reliving the misery of past embarrassments. It’s not as though you can call someone up, someone who may not even remember you, and say “Back in fourth grade, I mutter-mutter-mutter and I’m really sorry.”

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt, you know?

But I am sorry and I do wish I could make amends. I just don’t know where to start.

I do know that I need to do the best job I can of being the best person I can, here and now, in the year 2014, no matter what baggage I may be carrying around with me. I’ve made plenty of mistakes as an adult, too… but on the other hand, those are the kinds of mistakes where you can make amends. There’s still time, when tempers have cooled and the smoke has cleared to say “I’m so sorry. That was all my fault.” It’s another thing to be remembered by hundreds of people your age as the most extraordinary jerk to ever come down the pike, and yet, have no opportunity to do anything about it.

I suspect that the desire to show that I can be someone other than the fool I was once is a major contributing factor to all the work, such as it is, that I’ve done in the last six years to help fight breast cancer. There are thousands who’ve done much more than I have — I know that — but at least I’m trying to do something that matters, to show that I’m not a complete waste of space and air.

I know that, technically speaking, depression is a form of mental illness. And I know that mental illness isn’t widely respected as a real form of illness. People who are depressed get told “Just cheer up.” If that. And I know that I’m suffering from the symptoms of that illness when I spend whole days unable to get myself in motion to do anything because I just feel so bad. I know that I do need to do more to take care of myself, to exercise, to practice self-nurturing (the phrases you pick up when you read about mental illness!), to try to find the silver lining in every cloud.

I know that there are people reading this who are probably going “Jay! We knew you back then. We’ve forgotten all that stuff. It’s all in your head.” And my response is “Yeah, maybe so. But knowing that doesn’t make the shame and the regret just vanish.”

In the end, it’s hard to say exactly why I’m so abysmally depressed lately. Maybe some of it is genetic and biochemical. Maybe some of it is stress and isolation and family problems. Maybe a big chunk of it is due to my shame over what a twerp I was, and sometimes still am. But knowing all that doesn’t provide the solution for how to make the depression go away. I have millions of questions. I have no answers.

Leave a comment!

4 thoughts on “Depression: the Blacksburg hypothesis

  1. Diana

    Oh Jay, I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way. I was also the dweeb in band. Depression sucks and I know what you mean about exercise, I have to force myself some days. I for one am amazed at what you have done with your life since our high school years.

    Take care!

  2. Toby

    Jay, you don’t have any ceramic squirrels do you?

    Also, the past is gone. Live, like, now.

  3. your name here

    Depression? Dude. AU was 3-9 two years ago but the next year? AWESOMENESS! Look to the future.

    Anyway, I thought about your post (tl;dr) that I scanned yesterday when I saw this today. Read it. It isn’t the answer, but it’s helpful.

    Also, you know how to find most of our phone numbers. Pick up the phone and say, “I’m depressed. Shut up and listen to me for a while.”

    Call me. Text me. Email me. Eventually, even I can find a minute or 30 and we’ll talk.

  4. Ann

    Hi Jay, don’t think I’ve met you but know Carole thru music. I could say ditto to a lot that you wrote. Except that, as a kid, I was on the opposite side of your coin (the goody-goody who *never* did or said anything wrong because, well, I’d been shamed often enough and early enough for things I did or said wrong.) It’s hard when I *know* something would be helpful and I just can’t force myself to do it–and yeah, the addictive quality of internet or computer games catches me far too often. I find being in a weekly therapy group has been most helpful to keep myself accountable and on track (but weekly would be hard since you travel all the time). Being part of an exercise program has worked a lot better for me than trying to do it on my own (and damn if I didn’t have to get cancer to push me into FAHC’s and the Y’s programs.) Sometimes my volunteer work in social service makes me feel my skills, experience, life are worthwhile; other times it feels too much to take. I found a 12-step group (ACOA/CODA) helpful back in Indiana (too small a town to be truly anonymous so we became social friends, too); haven’t even looked for one here in Vt. It doesn’t help that winters are long and dark in Vt and socially it’s a hard nut to crack. Not asking you to feel sorry for me; just saying that you really aren’t alone in this. Good luck and here’s hoping that some (metaphorical) sun will break thru the clouds before long.

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